Meet Your Maker

Nov 29, 2010 at 12am

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Hislips

This conversation could be a mime thing, though, and any time now Matt Heckert, the man whose desk I am crouched across, will start walking against the wind or playing an invisible tug of war or something. He does none of those things, though. And I am left to draw another conclusion: I haven’t been listening to a word he’s saying. It’s not that he lacks charm or that he isn’t compelling as he details the finer points of chocolate-making machine minutiae at San Francisco's TCHO chocolates. My highly situational deafness is a byproduct of hearing something so unbelievable that I’m simply incapable of making any sense of it. 

I take a deep breath, tune in, and finally hear this former ice cream truck driver, refrigerator cleaner, and starving musician (with seminal San Francisco early punk band Pink Section) describe how he skipped the light fantastic to help found both crush-kill robotics renegades Survival Research Labs and music machinists Mechanical Sound Orchestra, and is now the chief engineer at the delightfully boutique TCHO.

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"You know, I feel really lucky. I mean, this is the first real job I’ve ever had," Matt says. He is 53

I know other 53-year-olds who’ve never held real jobs before, but I don't often meet ones who are this high functioning. I am again brain-boggled when I hear that Matt's traditional education lasted only a year — he got into and later dropped out of SF Art Institute. 

I also know plenty of dropouts, but few have managed to turn a negative into a positive so quickly and seemingly effortlessly. Matt eventually lectured at SFAI on sound, film, and composition and has won a treasure trove of commissions and awards, including the Prix Ars Electronica for computer music and the Golden Reel Award for best soundtrack. But he bristles slightly at my suggestion that it's been all garden walks and roses. In fact, in one drunken motorcycle accident years ago, he curbed the back of his head and lost his sense of smell. While that accident doesn’t count for much on the “things we really wish happened to us" scorecard, it does nicely set up the wildly unlikely subsequent occurrence that a man who can't smell anything or taste very much is now running the machinery that makes the magic at one of the best goddamned chocolate factories around.

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TCHO got its start, maybe just as confusingly, in 2005 when NASA space shuttle contractor Timothy Childs (the TC of TCHO) and 40-year chocolate industry veteran Karl Bittong decided that they wanted to make some chocolate. From scratch. Without slave labor and with a minimum of other business-as-usual crap. In 2007,  Wired  co-founders Louis Rossetto and Jane Metcalfe joined as CEO and president, respectively,and helped pull together a team of chocolate lunatics and food fans from other formidable locales — Ghirardelli, Scharffen Berger, and Lake Champlain Chocolates. The mission was then established: make good-tasting stuff better than anybody else. 

Located along the Embarcadero at Pier 17, TCHO has a corner of the factory set aside for retail. There are shelves filled with chocolate candy, chocolate-infused drinks, chocolate tchotchkes, and god knows what else chocolate-related, and all throughout, the air hangs heavy with the smell of, well, the confectionary business at hand. Matt waves me to the side of the store, where he's pushing aside two giant wooden doors so that I can drive down to the back section of TCHO, where all of the heavy lifting takes place.

We put on hairnets and make our way through the jungle of rumbling stainless steel tubing and the din of factory noises. The majority of the machines here came from the former East Germany, outside of Leipzig somewhere. The Berlin Wall fell and industries that had been propped up by the state crapped out, and Timothy bought a chocolate factory's entire production apparatus and shipped it back to the States, bolt by bolt. Believing that Matt was some kind of wild chocolate engineer based on misinformation he’d heard at a party, Timothy asked Matt to make the machinery make chocolate. It was no mean feat, considering that there are upward of ten steps involved (I counted) in turning the specially chosen cacao into the small-packaged chocolate squares that are guiltily munched by those who like to munch chocolate. It's a Rube Goldberg–esque delight, watching Matt’s creations roast the beans, cook the liquid slurries, carry the concoctions overhead, squirt the mixture into molds, and then shake, chill, turn, and pop out ready-to-package chocolate bits.

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Before TCHO, Matt had never seen a single chocolate-making machine in his life, but his style's always been fairly autodidactic. Beginning with his first race car, a Volvo gifted to him when he was a teenager by a guy who told him, "If you can get it running, you can have it," his M.O. has been singularly focused on reverse engineering. Nowhere was this clearer than his early days with Survival Research Labs, a group that became legendary for making stuff only previously nightmared about — sonic cannons, three-wheeled assault vehicles, and Hunter S. Thompson'd flame throwers.

With a little help from the Germans and a file cabinet full of old schematics and wiring diagrams, Matt got the chocolate factory machinery working about four and a half years ago. The main floor now has aggressively cleaned and refurbished vats for mixing, stainless steel tubes for transporting what's been mixed, and all the aforementioned molds, conveyor belts, and cookers/heaters, as well as hammers that smash the chocolates from the molds. At the end of the line are some very sweet women who pack up box after box of the confections before they're shipped out of the back door bay. 

We survey the room and swing around the corner to TCHO’s research and development division, a room with hair dryers jury-rigged to heat a wide collection of beans and flavorings that someone else in the company tastes and markets. The small, bean-focused methodology seems part of TCHO’s local charm. I pop an offered confection in my mouth and have to side with the full-on guerilla production style, hair dryers and all. The results are better than I remember chocolate tasting — and the last time I tasted a chocolate was in Switzerland, a country famous for the stuff.

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Matt’s transformation from a wild-eyed art terrorist with no engineering degree to the chief engineer at a chocolate company is kinda like an actor who played a doctor on television becoming a doctor. I find his story nothing short of inspirational, and as I follow him around, I wonder if Matt’s sense of his position at TCHO jibes with my sense of what seems like a pretty inspired destiny.

Standing back in his tractor-trailer-sized workshop festooned with shims, grommets, spanners, and a bunch of other shit that would make a nation of hobby-shop heroes lose their minds, Matt adjusts his glasses and starts talking about the guy who originally gave him the car. He considers himself lucky because the Volvo gifter, a kindred spirit if there ever were one, held his hand through the mechanics of making the car run, without ever making him feel stupid for wanting to do this in the first place.

You see, Matt isn’t really resisting analysis here, he’s just making it clear that making things click, move, and occasionally go boom is the only thing he ever wanted to do (aside from a brief foray into photography).

Before I leave, Matt gathers a plastic bag and starts sweeping chocolates into it. I feel kind of sad that I’m not getting one of the boxes TCHO has apparently won design awards for, but I also dig the trick-or-treaty vibe of receiving a bag of candy. I then drive back out through the double doors and wave goodbye to Matt, and wait a few blocks before I try one of my designer chocolate gifts. Sitting at a red light, I eat a piece that seems slightly fruity, heady, and incredibly smooth.

Despite a promise to myself to eat no more than this one, I sample the whole line after pulling over at a fire hydrant, hazard lights on. 

And I am typically only a fair-weather chocolate fiend.

Well done, Mr. Heckert. 

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Getting into the nutty bolts of making chocolate is a simple endeavor. Join TCHO’s special Tasters Circle for free and you can go on private tours and get your mitts on some of their newest formulations and recipes. TCHO tours also involve seeing, and being deafened by, Matt's mystical magical chocolate machines. If you go, bring earplugs, please.

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